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on a cool January evening in New York City, where 30-degree weather lends itself well to the sheer decadence of his black, gold button-adorned peacoat. Beneath his statement outerwear, a black turtleneck sweater plays chic second-fiddle to five diamond chains as the stones dance with the light and dare one’s inner Icarus to get closer to the glare. His aroma is pleasant, lingering between the hugs he passes around the room, which double as a chance to get a better look at the clean lines of his fresh fade and expertly groomed beard. The subtle light of the portrait umbrella invites its subject to step in and be captured as the gold chalice that serves as the rapper’s photo prop becomes a beyond-appropriate addition to his already “wealthy” aesthetic.
Just one week prior to this blatant display of (earned) luxury, The Washington Post reported that in reaction to bipartisan lawmakers seeking protection for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and countries in Africa, Donald Trump replied, “Why are we having all these people from s**thole countries come here?” One such “s**thole,” according to Trump, would be Rabat, Morocco, French Montana’s North African place of birth. From any vantage point in this warm, dark studio, French certainly doesn’t look like his origins lie in any “s**thole,” as his celebrity is the focal point of everyone at work around him. So how does a successful African immigrant respond to such vile and misguided quotes from the nation’s commander-in-chief? Apparently, he takes it all in stride.
“Honestly, me just emigrating from Morocco, coming from Africa and making my dreams come true, I just feel like a lot of people around the world feel like there’s hope when they see somebody like me,” he says, letting positivity lead the way of his thought process. Likening the harrowing transition in presidency from Barack Obama to Trump to a changing of seasons, French laments the lack of love — and perspective — in Trump’s leadership. “I don’t think he comes from poverty. He was never on welfare, never came from a third world country, never went through the struggle. I saw an interview that he did that he was like, ‘Man, all I had was a million-dollar loan from my father.’ I’m like, a million dollars? You know what you can do with that?”
Honestly, me just emigrating from Morocco, coming from Africa and making my dreams come true, I just feel like a lot of people around the world feel like there’s hope when they see somebody like me.
It’s not fair. If this would’ve happened around my time, I couldn’t have been French Montana because of this careless behavior of a leader.
A young Karim Kharbouch certainly wouldn’t have known anything about that before crossing the Atlantic Ocean at 13 years old to pursue a life in a country dubbed “the land of the free.” Transitioning from one form of hardship to another, Kharbouch would descend onto the South Bronx section of New York City, with Arabic and French hanging from his tongue, and a whole new set of challenges to navigate. In a matter of years, Karim, the eldest of his mother’s three children, would take up the responsibility left behind by his father, who retreated back to Morocco shortly after stepping foot on the coveted American soil. Street life and rap would play major roles in his becoming, as unfortunate events such as being shot in the head would accent his already vivid story. At any moment’s notice, fate could have twisted in the opposite direction of platinum singles and superstardom, but luckily for Karim, his “French Montana” moniker (derived from Morocco’s colonial history and the fictional Scarface character, Tony Montana) would eventually carry him a long ways from both Rabat and the South Bronx, and into a Calabasas mansion. But the stories between the bookends seem to keep him grounded. And nearly 15 years after landing in the U.S., the rapper’s return to his homeland serves as the triumphant backdrop of his latest music video.
Shot in Chefchaouen, Morocco, French Montana’s “Famous” visuals place the rich cerulean of the “Blue City” at centerstage, leaving, yet again, no evidence of a “shithole” in sight. Visibly elated to have returned to his birthplace, the four-minute clip finds the rapper’s prosperous present placed parallel with his starry-eyed youth, as culture oozes from every frame. Hookah pipes, colorful kaftans and gatherings backed by qraqeb stylings serve as vibrant contradictions to Trump’s visceral commentary, providing a quick dose of education, even if not by intention. “The video is like LeBron going back to Cleveland,” French says. “I’m going back home to show these kids that you can become a French Montana, you can become a Cheb Khaled, you can become whatever your dreams tell you.” His pilgrimage back to Morocco also meant reuniting with his father––an estrangement that he refers to as a “sacrifice”––and honoring his late grandmother, whose photo appears at the end of the clip. In keeping with family, tradition and humble beginnings, the meaning of the song “Famous” is actualized by its accompanying visuals as well. “See, that’s the whole twist with ‘Famous.’ ‘Famous’ is not about me talking to a girl, that’s why it’s one of my favorite records I ever did,” he explains. “‘Famous’ is talking about a mother and her child; she don’t want her child to get famous.”
The spoils of fame cause French to churn out familiar phrases like, “if it was easy, everybody would do it,” and “money is the root of all evil.” A few adages later, and he offers a poignant reality. “Everybody wanna be a rap star. Everybody wanna be an athlete. Everybody wanna be this and that,” he notes, using more well-known facts to preface his point. “But one thing you cannot cheat is the hustle. You can gab, you can finagle, you can do everything, but the hustle is like a mirror, you can’t cheat it. The hustle knows exactly what you’re doing.” In the end, the work reigns supreme. But it is not lost on French Montana that even the remote possibility to hustle in this manner is due to the likes of people like Barack Obama, who continue to champion for immigrants like himself to dream. Just hours before this interview, the rap star took to Twitter to inform any of his nearly three million followers who were not aware of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. Sharing a video of his recent appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he wrote: “This is the land of opportunity and I never would’ve had the privilege of performing on @FallonTonight if it weren’t for those who sacrificed for me to pursue my destiny.”
Now a point of contention under Trump’s administration, Obama’s DACA order secured the fate of nearly 700,000 immigrants who were brought to America illegally as minors. Of them, 44 percent have finished secondary school, 18 percent are enrolled in college and 64 percent are in the labor force, according to CBS News. As Democrats and moderate Republicans struggle to hold onto another facet of Obama’s legacy that Trump seeks to dismantle, government shutdowns and mentions of the ever-elusive Mexican “wall” drown out the fact that nearly one million lives hang in the balance. But all of this doesn’t have to be the concern of a now-rich celebrity — unless said celebrity decides to make it so. “In the States, you can become the president, literally. I feel like you can’t do that nowhere else. And it’s not fair. It’s not fair. If this would’ve happened around my time, I couldn’t have been French Montana because of this careless behavior of a leader.” The word “fair” causes a strain in his voice, almost echoing the mercy at which throngs of hopeful immigrants wait for a room of politicians to bang the gavels on their futures.
I feel like I’m blessed to even be the biggest artist to come out of Morocco as a country.
Fortunately for French Montana, several other key players also aided in his ascension. If another one of his mantras, “show me the closest four people to you, and I can tell you your future,” is any indicator, his present is a result of good company. It’s not every day that one finds themselves under the tutelage of Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs, and the Coke Boys' head honcho uses every opportunity to soak up game, even the not-so-occasional sleepless night. “I remember one time we just stayed up for like two nights in the studio,” French recalls. “We all finished, and he just came out of nowhere from around the corner, ‘Turn up!’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. This guy is a machine.’ And people don’t realize that about him, like, yo, he’ll outwork you. It’s a thing you’re gonna learn from him: If I got more money than you, why you sleep?” He ensures that lessons like these are only for those who are listening. But even before rubbing elbows with the upper echelon, French was picking up ways of life from the likes of two other beloved New York artists: the late Chinx Drugz and Max B. Previously serving a 75-year prison sentence that has since been reduced to 20 years, according to the New York Daily News, French insists imprisonment has done little to break the latter’s spirit. “When he caught his case and the judge gave him 75 years, I was right there with him in the courthouse, and he just turned around and looked at me and took it in the chin like a man. And every time you speak to him, his spirit is so positive.” Emulating that positivity is what French points to as a key to his Rolodex of relationships.
You can’t stop people from dreaming. You can’t stop people from hustling. You can’t stop people from believing. If you believe you can fly, fly.
“I just feel like we come from a lifetime of negativity,” he says when he’s asked what his secret is. “When you get to this point where it’s like, all you want to do is spread love. It’s all about energy. If you read The 48 Laws of Power, the Secret book, 36 Strategies of War, great leaders lead with love.” This idea rounds out the nature of the man behind the French Montana allure. He is led by positivity and this positivity is fueled by gratitude. A practicing Muslim, gratefulness is a cornerstone of his faith. And though a laundry list of luxury items, music accolades or once-in-a-lifetime experiences could have been the answer to a question about what he’s most grateful for, his answer is simple: “Life. Just being able to be here. Just seeing my blessings and my good karma come to life. I feel like I’m blessed to even be the biggest artist to come out of Morocco as a country.” An even simpler answer follows when he is asked to reveal what his goals for the new year are: “Just to be happy.” This bare-bones approach to happiness was further cemented by the rapper’s work in Uganda, where his collaboration with the country’s Mama Hope foundation helped to bring health care to over 280,000 Ugandans by building a local hospital. “There’s kids with one outfit a year,” he points out. “They don’t even have health care, which should be a right, not even a privilege. But people are just happy. They don’t have access to everything that we have, and it almost makes me feel like the more you get, the less you care.” That is, if you don’t stay aware.
This all leaves one to wonder how a 12-year-old Moroccan boy’s view of America differs from that of a 33-year-old immigrant who now knows the lay of the land. While the image is admittedly less shiny than the one informed by the naivete of his adolescence, French Montana still loves America. So much so that he continues to speak out against ideals as un-American as the crushing of a dream. “You can’t stop people from dreaming. You can’t stop people from hustling. You can’t stop people from believing. If you believe you can fly, fly. You can’t stop people from that because you have power to,” he says, basking in the same hope his younger self clinged to.
His older self, however, sprinkles in a bit of reality. “You could walk outside and get shot, you could walk outside and be the president. The risk is as big as it gets.”